“The EU has to be a peaceful project which does not look first, as it currently does, on how it gets best access to resources and how it increases its power in the world”
Gabriele Zimmer is a German politician, president of the GUE/NGL group (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) since March 2012, being member of the European Parliament for 8 years in the same political group. Committed to left-wing policies, before her participation in the EP she was president of the German left party PDS (currently Die Linke) from 2000 to 2003.
-Could you tell us anything about your background? What are your studies?
I studied interpretation during the 70ies, still in times of the German Democratic Republic. My main languages were Russian and French, but, I never worked as an interpreter. I became member of the Socialist Unified Party in the 80ies, working for the party organization of a motor vehicle and sporting / hunting guns company in Suhl. After the German reunification I was the president of the Party for Democratic Socialism (PDS) in the German region of Thuringia from 1990 till 1998, being also a member of the “Landtag”, i.e. the regional parliament, until 2004. From 2000 until 2003 I was the president of the PDS Germany.
-How did you become a MEP? Was this an objective for you in your political career?
Being engaged in politics for many years, I realised that our main problems as poverty, social exclusion and environmental challenges are very similar in different regions and countries. They have to be addressed, at least, on a European level if you really want to effectively solve them. Because poverty has the same origins in all Member States and the people affected face more or less the same problems, living in that inhuman situation. Therefore, it has never been my objective to work towards being elected as a MEP. Because of my political work, at a certain point it was a logical step coming to the EP.
-What’s your role in the European Parliament?
Since March 2012, I am the president of the left group GUE/NGL. Accepting that responsibility, my daily tasks changed almost completely. From 2004 until 2009, I was working during my first legislature in the Employment and Social Affairs committee on poverty issues, while I was focusing my work on the fight against hunger and poverty worldwide in the Development committee from 2009 onwards. Now, as a president, I am dealing a lot with official meetings with NGO representatives, trade unionists, and ambassadors. Furthermore, I try to coordinate and balance political positions inside our group. This is the most difficult task as we are a confederal group, composed by 17 different delegations, everyone with its own traditions and experiences, where mutual respect of the different opinions is crucial.
-What’s being the role of the EP in the current crisis? Will it be reinforced when we’ll overcome it?
At the moment, the heads of the Member States governments try to marginalize or even to bypass the European Parliament and national parliaments in order to force into place austerity policies in the EU. Parliamentary debates are seen as disturbing fast decisions in order to solve the crisis. But, if you have a look onto the Council summit marathon they are organizing since the beginning of the crisis, no effective decisions to the benefit of European populations have been taken yet. Instead, authoritarian decisions are implemented step by step, using the intergovernmental Union method to the detriment of the Community method, burdening the costs of the crisis on employees, workers and the poorest of the poor people. Public spending is cut, social welfare systems are undermined, education and health sectors are severely damaged, especially, in the countries most affected by the crisis. This is a dangerous development as regards democratic standards. I really hope that a majority of the EP and of the national parliaments will not longer accept that. Ms Merkel wants a “market conform democracy” while we want a market for people´s benefit and for democracy.
-What are the principles of the European United Left-Nordic Green Left? How do you understand Europe?
First of all, we believe that a better Europe is possible, based on the principle of solidarity, not competition. We are firmly committed to European integration, but with an alternative, not the existing model. Integration has to be based on fully democratic institutions. Our vision of Europe includes a socially and ecologically sustainable development facing the most serious problems. For us, the inhuman and unjust austerity policies have to be stopped immediately. Furthermore, the EU should tackle large-scale and increasing unemployment, ensure respect for the environment, and create a common social area that provides equal rights at the highest level for all citizens. The EU has to take responsibility for the external effects of its policies and to meet the needs of those who are forced by poverty in their countries of origin to seek their livelihood in the Union. Also, the economic imbalances as an important cause of the crisis have to be reduced, bringing the economies of each Member State closer together. Therefore, we oppose the efforts of the most powerful countries to impose their policies on everyone else.
-Do you think that the EU is too bureaucratized?
In general, I would not agree. I want to answer that question more differentiated. Compared to Member States or regional administrations, the number of people working for the EU is quite small. While the Commission employs about 23 000 persons, responsible for 500 million Europeans, the German city of Munich, for example, employs about 33 000 persons working for 1 million inhabitants. To be correct, both administrations have quite different tasks. Nevertheless, this is one reason why we observe the problem of nontransparent lobbying activities because the Commission relies on external expertise to fulfill its tasks adequately. Of course, there will always be cases where you ask yourself: how can this kind of regulation excess happen? But, that can happen everywhere. To put in place necessary regulations you need a well equipped bureaucracy. For us, the important question is how to stop the nontransparent lobbying activities.
-Is decision-making in the EU entirely conditioned by the crisis?
Yes, at the moment, definitely. The German Government with the support of some northern Member States imposes austerity policies on all Member States, especially, the southern ones. But, cutting public spending in times of crisis is the worst you can do because it results in an economic downturn leading to higher unemployment, lower tax revenues and a higher need for social services. That is an irrational and old-fashioned concept which already did not work in past decades. It will not work now. Instead, we would have to address the economic imbalances between export and import countries within the EU. Germany still successfully prevents that this question is discussed. We need more social justice and more balanced economies inside an EU based on solidarity between its citizens. That will be crucial to have a viable and sustainable future of the Euro and the EU.
-If you had the possibility to change something of the EU, what would it be?
First of all, I would go for a Social Compact, focusing on high quality employment, fight against poverty and social exclusion, and free access to health and education systems for all. As you can see in Germany, the social background of children extremely influences their health and qualification status. This highly unfair situation where poor and middle class people pay for the rich is not acceptable. Therefore, we need social and labour rights to be on the same level as economic freedoms. I would definitely try to stop privatization and liberalization of public goods and services and social systems as well because a more equitable society is better for all. In my mind, it’s necessary to bring back “Public”, create new jobs in public services and higher evaluate jobs in care and health. I would like to facilitate the access of all people living in the EU to social and public services. Then, I would change EU´s external policies in order to allow for a real development based on ownership of the developing countries. The EU has to be a peaceful project which does not look first, as it currently does, on how it gets best access to resources and how it increases its power in the world. And, the EU has to be on the forefront in the fight against climate change.
-Are you worried about the citizen disaffection for the European project? How can that be fought against? Should we fight against it?
For sure, I am worried about that development. I can also understand the people quite well because very often the EU seems to undermine social standards, to attack labour rights and to be on big businesses´ side only. For 20 years, the EU has become a neoliberal project focusing mainly on its global competitiveness. But, it is the Member States´ Governments which have the biggest influence on EU policies. And, if you have a closer look, it is a mainstream development in most Member States since the 80ies to follow the neoliberal ideology of liberalization, privatization and increasing competitiveness via social dumping. Another result is an increase in authoritarian decision-making without involving the people affected. That is what we have to fight against. To convince its citizens, the EU has to become a real democratic and social Union. People have to be part of decision-making processes and to be asked about how they want to live in the future.
-How do you think the EU will be in 1-year time? And in 5 years?
That is difficult to answer. I fear that the economic imbalances and social disparities will further increase as a result of austerity policy. Donor countries will be even more powerful, imposing their policies on the other Member States. This will be a challenge for the Eurozone and the EU as a whole. The EU was supposed to increase social and territorial coherence, an objective which seems to become less important. As you can already see in Greece, nationalist and right-wing extremist parties can increase their influence, benefitting from a disastrous social situation of many persons. I really hope that the pressure towards the governments will increase to stop these inhuman and irrational policies. We have to spend more money in our youth, in jobs and employment, in public goods and services and in a low carbon economy. That will be the only way to bring forward a social, ecological and democratic EU.
-Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.